Americans go all out for Christmas. Every year, one of my neighbours transforms the actual home they live in into a life-size copy of a gingerbread house, complete with giant spinning lollipops, enormous candy cane arches and an entire Oompa Loompa scene reenacted on the lawn. But far from being an object of ridicule, it’s revered. Everywhere you look, ordinary white-picket streets are turned into glitzy parades of corny ostentation. It’s as if the Munchkins have suddenly decided to start flipping houses and floated down from Oz to make a few quid.
But bite your bah humbug in the lip, because participation is mandatory. A week before Christmas — our house blissfully unadorned — a group of neighbours turned up at our door: “We thought we’d see if you needed help putting up your lights?” The posse had come a-knockin’ and their message was clear: every other house on our street was lit up like an airline landing strip — there were galloping reindeers, icicle bubble machines and a little mechanical Jesus that waved as you walked by. Ours was like Scrooge’s secret cabin in the woods.
So I did what all real men would do in that situation: capitulate. Just 24 hours later, I’m up a tree spinning lights and blowing up a gaudy inflatable Santa. But, hours of knotted cords and swear words later, my best effort looked like what would happen if Santa got sleigh sick. “So they don’t do this in London, huh?” was the best the mob could manage.
No, is the answer to that. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I’m all for excessive eating and drinking, I just don’t need a silly hat and a bad jumper to make it OK — less Will Ferrell from Elf, more Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa, if you will. But the accent does come in handy this time of year: “Oh look, John, he sounds like Oliver Twist!” Actually, I was going for Dick Van Dyke, but pass the eggnog for God’s sake and help me ease this pain.
Christmas is only part of it, of course. In America, the holiday season is a two-month affair, beginning with Halloween, followed by Thanksgiving (radical concept: get nothing, be thankful for what you already have) and ending with the bells on New Year’s Eve. And boy does it start with a bang. Halloween in the US is to its British counterpart what professional bodybuilding is to the occasional dabble in the gym: same premise, far more impressive flex.
And it’s not all giggles and sweets either. Every year, Halloween Horror Nights, at Universal Orlando Resort, creates the kind of big-budget Hollywood-style haunted houses — or mazes, as they’re called — that make our fairground ghost trains look like mere Punch & Judy. And they’re genuinely scary. I spent a night walking through seven of them and got attacked by The Walking Dead in an abandoned hospital, assaulted by bikini-clad vampires in the From Dusk Till Dawn bar and had my dinner served to me on a cannibal island. It was like being dropped in a horror movie, except you’re the star.
And that’s not always a good thing. There is a moment in scary films when, instead of running out the door, the teenage girl (because usually it is) walks upstairs to confront the serial killer instead. On the last maze, a recreation of the house from the iconic ’70s slasher flick Halloween (source of many a personal nightmare), I became that girl: forced to slide open shower curtains, creep down to the basement and peer into the pitch-black garage, as real-life actors in full Michael Myers suits sprang at me with blood-drenched butcher’s knifes. I started full of macho bravado and ended holding a stranger’s hands.
But who cares? If you’re going to decorate your house, why not make it visible from space. If you’re going to dress up, why not let dozens of knife-wielding maniacs scare you half to death. America has no time for halfheartedness. Over the Top, here, is a 1980s Stallone film about arm-wrestling, not a design flaw. And they may be onto something. Because, ultimately, Tiny Tim was right and Ebenezer was wrong; the Munchkins may have an annoying song, but they throw a good party. America knows: in holiday spirit, as in life, you get back what you put in. This year, I’m going all out.
British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains of Boulder, Colorado since.
Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)